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Symbolism overshadows When We Dead Awaken


Written by Henrik Ibsen.

Translated by Robert Brustein.

Directed by Robert Wilson.

Starring Alvin Epstein, Stephanie Roth,

Elzbieta Czyzewska and Sheryl Sutton.

At the American Repertory Theatre.

Continues through March 9.


IBSEN'S PLAY, When We Dead Awaken, is sometimes slow and often irritating, yet always provocative. Its symbolic sets, stage props, and extreme, expressionistic acting distract attention from the plot.

The play explores the disappointing but inevitable ugliness and pettiness to which human love and lifetimes are reduced. Rubeck (Alvin Epstein), an old artist, who has spent most of his life riding on the fame of his first sculpture, grows bored with his wife, Maya (Stephanie Roth), and disillusioned with his life because his creative inspiration has died. Rubeck and Maya quarrel: Maya, too, is disappointed and accuses him of failing to keep his promise to show her the glory of the world from a mountaintop.

While vacationing together in a bleak Chekhovian landscape of small, dead towns which are all vaguely familiar to the characters, Rubeck is visited by the ghost of his former model, Irene (Elzbieta Czyzewska and Sheryl Sutton).

Due to Rubeck's miserable failure to engage in a passionate affair with her, Irene led a life of prostitution and violence, culminating in suicide. She returns now as not one, but two people (a black woman dressed in black and a white woman in white) who act and speak both separately and in conjunction.

Rubeck regrets his failure, but more for egotistical reasons than anything else. His denial of his sexual attraction to Irene provided the necessary energy for his own creative genius to work, and without her he has been unable to create anything of worth. Irene returns from the dead in order to kill him and revenge herself. In the course of the play she discovers that her effort was pointless, however, since Rubeck is already spiritually dead.

While Rubeck ruminates on his wasted life, Maya seeks fulfillment through lust. She has an affair with a bear killer, a farcical grotesque whose every move is an obscene sexual gesture. This caricature of ugly physicality cavorts with Maya and brings her to the mountaintop -- a promise on which Rubeck never delivered.

But the mountaintop turns out to be stormy and treacherous. The affair might have been interpreted as a positive release, but we are constantly reminded of the bear killer's grossness. Maya's affair with the bear killer helps her to sever her marital bonds. Their greedy sex is offered by the play as an alternative to Rubeck's meditative desolation.

The play's sets are sparse, yet symbolically rich, and demand attention and interpretation. Metal chairs that screech and swivel on command, a primitive tripod made of sticks and clay that is whisked away on a neon conveyor belt, and a red ball that glows on the floor are but a few of the visual puzzles that tease and distract throughout the performance. Odd modern set pieces, like remote control boxes and a medieval fantasy of an elfin throne, call attention to themselves. Shocking mechanical dissonance -- sounds like vacuum cleaners screaming, and the actors' lip-synching their own recorded voices -- are but a few of the audio surprises in this self-conscious production.

Acting techniques further call attention to these sets and symbols. Dialogues overlap, and long, speechless spaces almost erase questions before they are answered. These empty spaces are filled with stylized, slow-motion movements often expressive of pain or constriction. Such slow sections, while initially interesting, begin to drag by the middle of the play. They almost force the attention of the viewer onto the various puzzling symbols on stage. The slow pace allows the viewer to try to tease out the meanings of mysterious, highlighted objects, which frequently dominate over characters and plot.

Irritating idiosyncrasies, such as Roth's painfully exaggerated enunciations and robotic-marionette movements and poses, call attention to the artifice of the drama. The act of interpretation is brought to the surface, constantly reminding the viewer of the choices made.

Luckily, the grim body of the play is set inside an easily palatable frame. The play opens with a lone black man limping. He proceeds to sing the blues about love as a middle-aged sex kitten parades and beckons, her face dead-pan. Later, he returns with the rest of the cast to do a light chorus line number about falling in love, in which Maya, Rubeck and the others drop their bleak personas and tap dance. These pleasant intermissions relieve the heavy, deterministic atmosphere and prevent the play from seeming to take itself too seriously.

It is the final "knee play," as these mini-performances are called, which was the best moment of the play. Charles "Honi" Coles sits on Robert Wilson's lead and steel bed, singing a bittersweet, bluesy lament, while a woman smokes with her back turned. Her mellow voice joins his soft one, but she never turns around, and she leaves the stage before he is finished, without having acknowledged him. The simple, lonely love song on the steel bed is undercut by the stiff, grim body of the play where there is no celebration of love, but it still manages to resonate and relieve.

Overall, When We Dead Awaken is a complex play about art and love that demands an audience willing to work to figure out its tantalizing symbolism, willing to be bombarded with irritating sounds and willing to fill slow moments with their own thoughts about the issues. It is a play that will either leave you frustrated, or up for hours of discussion.